Preserving the past to shape the future

An extensive line drawing of Venice in 1490.

Rare books and manuscripts, at risk of crumbling away, need special homes which protect them for future generations. Without them, pathways into the past and routes into the minds of previous generations are closed forever.

Our Special Collections, based in the Albert Sloman Library, offer a home to many unique artefacts in a hub for researchers worldwide.

Over our 60-year history, we have gathered and been gifted a fascinating array of collections. By carefully preserving these historical pieces, we make them available to students and researchers across the globe who can learn from and be inspired by them.

Special conditions for a special collection

Housed in rooms with controlled temperature, light, and humidity lie some of our most intriguing, fascinating, and surprising artefacts of the past.

From heavy, leather-bound books from as far back as the 15th century to a complete photographic record of how our University was conceived and constructed, our special collections are a valuable learning tool, inspiring our students and sparking new thinking.

Old, leather-bound books on shelves. Old, leather-bound books on shelves.

From the library of King Henry VIII

The Libri de re rustica is part of the Harsnett Collection, a library of books that was the property of Samuel Harsnett, Archbishop of York between 1629 and 1631. Most of the volumes in the collection are on religious subjects, but there are some exceptions. Libri de re rustica — which translates as “book of country affairs” — contains writings on agriculture by four leading classical authors: Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 BC), Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC), Lucius Junius Moderatus Collumella, and Palladio.

The edition in our collection was published in 1528 and is bound in leather. The armorial, or heraldic, design on the front and back cover suggests that the book may have been part of the library of King Henry VIII.

The collection contains some 900 books belonging to the Archbishop Harsnett, with some additions from other collectors. He specifically bequeathed his unique collection of books to the town (now city) of Colchester. We are honoured to be the home of such an ancient and complete collection, preserving it not just for our University community, but for the whole of Colchester.

A yellowed book with the title 'Libri de re rustica' and a royal coat of arms embossed in its leather cover.

Could the handwritten notes in this edition belong to King Henry VIII himself?

Could the handwritten notes in this edition belong to King Henry VIII himself?

Travel blogging in the 1490s

This panorama of Venice from 1490 shows a detailed view of the city as a bustling and active port.

The author, Bernhard von Breydenbach, travelled with an illustrator, Erhard Reuwich, so the sights he saw on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem could be translated into woodcut illustrations. The detail is astounding, and sometimes harrowing, with one illustration showing a tiny gallows on a hillside.

Today, we might expect a series of Instagram holiday snaps to give us an insight into someone’s travels, but in 1490, an illustrated book like this would have been rare indeed. In order to see the full view of the city, the page folds out.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton said “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. A book by one of the giants he is referring to is, in fact, part of our Harsnett collection.

Between paragraphs of Latin text sit two diagrams covered in ever shrinking circles connected by lines and letters.

Arab scholar Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (known in the West as Alhazen), who was born in Basra in the year 965 and who died in 1039, proposed a new theory of vision, and reflection and refraction of light. His book on optics, written between 1011 and 1021, was translated into Latin in 1572 and influenced Western scientists including Galileo and Newton. Alhazen challenged the existing theories of Ptolemy and Euclid, and he was a pioneer in scientific investigation.

A unique view of the world

Another prized piece in our collection is the Mercator Atlas of 1613. In 1569, Gerhard Mercator devised a way of displaying the globe of the Earth in flat, two-dimensional form. His projection has since been shown to be inaccurate, but this atlas remains a fascinating record of the ‘known world’ from a European perspective at that time. Written in Latin in 1613, it contains maps of countries and regions with detailed descriptions.

This atlas was the result of the work of two men: Mercator and Jodocus Hondius, a publisher and engraver. After Mercator’s death, Hondius bought the engraved plates to several of Mercator’s maps. He then updated and embellished Mercator’s original maps and added his own to form the atlas we see today.

Unlike today’s paper which is often made of wood pulp, paper of the time was made from cloth which is much less acidic and so lasts longer. Some of the pages of this antique volume are still intact, while some have needed specialist repair and have been backed and restored by a professional paper restorer. The atlas lives in our special temperature-controlled area to ensure its continued survival.

An old map of Essex showing some familiar villages with unusual spellings like 'Wivenhoo', 'Clackton', and 'Manytre'.

A glimpse into family life

Another fascinating item which gives a unique insight into family life is found in the Russell collection from the library of Stubbers House in North Ockenden. Descendants of the Russell family bequeathed the contents of their library to our collection. It contains a number of valuable books on subjects such as hunting, farming, and trade, which would have been normal for a country house of its standing at the time, along with a King James Bible published in 1660. Inside, on its front pages, the family recorded some of the key dates from family life.

Notes in calligraphic handwriting which read 'William and John had the Measles the beginning of September 1758. William had the Small'.

This handwritten record shows personal milestones for the family from when they were married to when William and John contracted the measles — and survived. Thought to have been written by members of the family themselves in the beautiful, flowing calligraphy of the time, it is a wonderful, if poignant, glimpse into family life.

A richly drawn title page for this 1660 Bible depicting King James on the throne surrounded by twelve lions as well as bearded men.

The Garden of Eden?

The rest of this special King James Bible is remarkable too, showing a number of illustrated plates. One of the most intriguing illustrations is of the Garden of Eden with its strange and exotic animals gathered in unusual peace, together. Other illustrations include a map of the Holy Land and illustrations of King Solomon’s Temple. It is clear from looking at the animals depicted that many would have beyond the imagination of most people, including its illustrator — see if you can identify these terrifying beasts!

A detailed drawing of Adam and Eve beneath a tree in the garden of Eden. They are surrounded by real and mythical animals and birds.

Visiting the collection

Our Special Collections can be visited by appointment. Book ahead to ensure the materials you want to look at are available. The reading room is open for booked visits from Tuesday to Friday between 9am and 4pm. We ask that visitors wash their hands before handling any of our precious items and only pencils may be used to make notes.

Take a look at our website to find out more about visiting our collections or email to arrange a visit.

Find out more

A black and white photo showing an old Fiat 500 car parked in a fountain on our Colchester Campus.

Visit our art gallery

Satisfy your artistic longings at our on-campus art gallery, Art Exchange. Current exhibitions include Daniel & Clara: The Watcher and the Bird, which uses JA Baker’s The Peregrine (another from our Special Collections) as inspiration; and our Brutal But Beautiful exhibition, charting the architectural history of our University campus.

Two students paint their impression of a John Constable artwork outside on our Colchester Campus.

Try a summer art class

If you like to get stuck in, join an Art Exchange summer arty class and choose from painting in the park, cyanotype photography, foraging, sculpture, and even circus skills all taking place in the glorious surrounds of Wivenhoe Park.

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